Destination unknown

On July 12, 2012, Lizzy wrote, …I had started a short novel a bunch of months back off of an idea that I couldn’t keep in my head any longer. For the first couple days I wrote like a mad women, trying to get down all the ideas flowing through my head. Many pages later I slowed down and finally I stopped. I had come to a ‘dead end.’ I wasn’t out of ideas but the current idea I led off from made me realize something when I came to the ‘dead end,’ I had no idea where the story was leading off to! When I started writing I had a couple of ideas to some events which I wanted to happen but then I realized that I hadn’t really thought of any ‘main problem’ or climax, no real moral, and or no ending. It has been months since I have touched the story and I really want to get back into it. Should I edit up what I have, start anew or continue where I left? Have any advice?

I’ve been listening to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures online that Caitlyn recommended. This will soon be relevant for Lizzy’s question, but as an aside, the lectures are quite interesting although I suspect not complete, which makes sense, since students pay for the real thing. Quite a few are devoted to publishing, especially to publishing fantasy and science fiction. For those of you who are at that point you may find the information very helpful. Mr. Sanderson’s experience is more up to date than mine, since I broke in in 1997, which now seems an age ago. The link again is,

Back to Lizzy. Mr. Sanderson describes two kinds of writers, those who outline and those who don’t. Those who don’t he calls discoverers, and I count myself in that category. We “discover” our stories as we write. The trouble is, we can get lost. We wander around and start over and over and over. (Outliners have problems of their own, according to Mr. Sanderson.)

Before I start writing a book itself I write notes, which is the closest I come to outlining, and the distance is still vast. Usually by the time I think I have a solid idea and often a vague notion of the end, a beginning comes to me and I plunge in. But because I haven’t thought the whole thing through I make disastrous mistakes. I call it getting stupid. I’ve mentioned here that I wrote about 140 pages of the new mystery while forgetting to include any suspects and then about 260 pages of the same mystery. This time there were plenty of suspects but the mystery couldn’t be solved. Sigh. I went back to the beginning.

In my mistakes, however, I generally find something that leads me in the right direction that takes me finally through to the end. It’s not efficient. Obviously! I’m always hoping that the next book will run more smoothly.

And some have. A simple story shape is easiest for me. I don’t mean a simple story, just the shape. If I can see the arc I can throw in complications galore and still see my way through. My historical novel Dave at Night has such a shape. Dave, an orphan, needs a home. Everything that happens (mostly) has bearing on that essential problem. In Ever Kezi is on a quest to find her future – pretty straightforward. Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is based on “Sleeping Beauty.” What could be simpler? It was a blast to write.

So for Lizzy and others with our problem, I suggest you think about your story shape. Even the books I had trouble with, like The Two Princess of Bamarre, for example, became possible once I found my story shape, in this case a quest for the cure to the Gray Death in time to save Addie’s sister, Meryl.

Since you haven’t looked at your manuscript in months, you might start by reading through it. If you can resist jumping in, just think about what you have. Write notes. Ask yourself questions that will help you continue. Here are some question suggestions:

What’s the main character’s main problem? You may not know, so other questions follow. What are all her problems? Which seems the most significant, the one that can sustain a lot of spin-off problems, that suggests more events in your story?

Who is your main? If you don’t know, who interests you the most? For whom do you feel the most sympathy, care about the most? Whose company do you enjoy the most? (That doesn’t have to be your main, but most often it will be.)

If what you have seems like a hopeless mess, stop calling your story names! But is there something, some incident, bit of dialogue, thought monologue, that pleases you? Where might it lead? Is that your story?

What does your main want? What, among your pages, have you thrown up as obstacles to the achievement of her desire? What else can you come up with?

What would finally solve the problem, happily or tragically? What might three alternative endings be? Think of two more after that. Which satisfies you the most?

Imagine an epilogue (which you may not need when you get there). Who would be there? What would the mood be?

An organized person, reading this post, would likely roll his eyes and say, Why didn’t you ask yourself all these questions and answer them before you started?

Because discoverers don’t work that way. We throw out lots of bait and let our stories find us.

The answer to the questions Lizzy ended with may be obvious by the time you finish answering mine. If not, I have an opinion. If it’s possible to just keep going and not start over, I think that’s best, because it will get you quickest to the end and the pleasure of revising, since most discoverers love to revise. It’s our great strength – if we don’t get so obsessed that we can never release our story.

But if your fingers feel paralyzed and your brain turns to mush whenever you try to continue (this happens to me), then probably you need to start over. It’s what I do when I must.

Here are two prompts:

∙ An outliner and a discoverer meet at a party. They hit it off, find that they both love the same books and both are writing a post-apocalyptic fantasy. In a burst of mad enthusiasm they decide to collaborate, but when they meet to discuss what they want to do, everything starts to fall apart. Write the scene. Keep going for a story of friendship or love or hatred.

∙ Start with a chase. Irena is fleeing a creature with the body of a horse, the head of a snake, and the spiked spine of certain dinosaurs. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Pasten is in a mud wrestling contest with the champion from their rival village, who does not fight fair. And her sister is at home, surrounded by three men from the rival village. Sew all this together into a coherent story, asking yourself the questions I ask above.

Have fun, and save what you write!

    • I can't say from experience, and I didn't pay as close attention since I'm not one. But I think Mr. Sanderson said that outliners often don't want to revise. They want to start the next project. Does that sound familiar?

    • Well, then I must be a strange mix of the two. I don't actually mind revising, yet I still outline my novels before I write them.
      But I do find that I don't always like changing a part of my story that's been in my head for a long time, and I also don't really like it when the story starts deviating from my outline. So I guess that would be the Outliner half of me. (It's obviously not extreme, because my outlines aren't down to the last details.)
      My Discoverer side loves the thrill of a new story and a certain measure of uncertainty concerning the outcome, but when the creating gets tough, I find myself looking forward to having it done. "It'll be easier to get this right when I have something to work with," I tell myself.
      So would you call me a Discliner, or perhaps an Outcoverer? 😛 (Sorry for the long comment!)

    • Makes sense. I've also heard of another set of categories (or creative paradigms) that Randy Ingermanson talks about. His categories are:
      Editing as you go
      and Outlining.
      I found myself to be more of a Snowflaker, I think — someone who generally plans before writing, doesn't mind loose ends, tolerates organizing things, thinks in a linear or random pattern, and prefers to look at the big picture first. (Roughly quoted from 'Writing Fiction for Dummies'.)

  1. I like the term 'discoverer', but you also make the comment "An organized person, reading this post, would likely roll his eyes and say, Why didn’t you ask yourself all these questions and answer them before you started?" I disagree. I am a very organized person, but I am also a discoverer. I've analyzed this many times over the years trying to figure out why and have come to the conclusion that the biggest difference is not organization over disorganization, but plot over character. When reading, I prefer character-driven books to plot-driven books, and therefore, prefer writing the same. It takes me a long time to get to know my characters, and it's messy… I throw them in, see how they react and then throw them into something else to see how they react. I always have a general idea of plot, but I have to really see the character's personality before I'm ready to work out the kinks, of which there are a TON. This is mostly because plot makes no sense to me until I know who is going there.

    I would assume there are those who think the opposite way, and need to know where they're going before they can pick out who they want to go there. It seems to me, this would be an easier way of looking at things, but I can't do it without having my characters come across as wooden and unreal.

  2. Thank you for posting about this. I'm a discoverer, and I run into this problem a lot.

    BTW, since Gail's encouraged us to talk about our writing successes, thank you to everybody who suggested fairy tales to me a while back. The online magazine Daily Science Fiction bought a series of 14 "Twisted Flash Fairytales" from me, to run next year. So thank you for the input!

  3. Wow! I had just been about to ask a VERY simular question! I tend to try to string ideas together and it has never worked! Or I get a breif idea (usually a book title, of all things), write on it for a few days, and then hit a dead end! This has always been my problem! This came at the right time to, since I'm actually doing NaNo this year! It's my first time, and I'm a little worried! Any tips? I'm on as inkling97!

  4. So I have a problem that's pretty much the opposite of this one. When I set out to write a new book, I have a destination in sight; it's the beginning that's the problem. I'll start with a scene, then mark it off as being too boring. So I'll skip to somewhere closer to the action. But then I'll find that I don't get enough character voice, so I'll skip backwards a bit. By the time I find a place that I think works, I'll have lost interest in the idea. Or I'll be so sick of wrangling with it that I drop the project for later.

    I haven't written anything major in months, and I think this is part of the problem why. Any suggestions?

    • The problem may be that you're being self-critical when it's way too early. You can skip forward if you need to, jump back, wait for the character voice to emerge as you write, but don't expect a perfect beginning. You can get that when you revise – and even then we all have to guard against passing judgment on our work.

  5. I'm not an outliner; I write summaries instead. Okay, so maybe that counts as an outliner:) It's still frustrating sometimes, though – I still get stuck. I know what's going to happen next, but not always how. And right now writing has become a drudgery, mainly, I think, because I have to write fight scenes and create some mystery, and I'm just not smart enough for that! I'm a simpleminded person. When there's a tiny scuffle I think "Wow, I'll bet that took planning!" and when there's a simple mystery, I'm the last one to solve it. So I get stuck because I can plan the overall, but when it comes to the technical, I'm no good. Sigh… So, I force myself to write anyway, mostly junk, lately, no more than one paragraph. But it's writing. Once I get past this phase, I think I'll jump through the roof in excitement.

    Oh, and, being a planner, I do HATE revising. I read through and think, "This is junk! How can I ever make it readable?" Of course, moments later, I'm convincing myself that it just needs a little work…okay, a lot of work. And I work through it. Eventually. And while I do, I dream of the day I'll get to start my next book.

    • @ writeforfun – Was your brother asking about mystery tips? He may have gotten his answer already, but in case he is looking for more…

      I've been working a bit on mystery writing too and picked up a random book at the library, Writing Mysteries. I found a helpful tidbit in a chapter by P.M. Carlson. Basically this:
      – outline the basic story of the crime, together with the usual motive that ties them together
      – then think of who else may have committed this crime and why? Outline several (or maybe one for younger readers, I think) of these.
      – the extra stories should cross the original story from time to time, interweave them together. They will be your red herrings.

  6. I have been writing and rewriting the same story-line over and over for about 6 years (I definitely fall into the outliner category) it's just I get stuck then I get angry and start all over again. This time I've gone a little further with background information. My question is should I just start over or should I go deeper with the background stuff that I am currently doing and work with that instead of the original story? (If you want to check out my background stuff click on my name and check out my blog.)

  7. From the website:

    Hi Mrs. Levine!
    I have posted on here before, but I just wanted to ask you something.
    All through your blog and Writing Magic, you say you don't plan, but you use 'notes'. At one point, you even said you wrote eight pages of 'notes'. What do you write in your notes? About the story? About where it takes place, who is in it? How could you shape all of that into eight pages?
    From Kathryn

  8. I always think I have an outline going into a thing, but then I reach a point (for my WIP, right around chapter 7) where I *discover* how much bigger and deeper and scarier the story is than I originally thought. Even though I'm sitting with a completed manuscript (minus all the editing it needs before I put it before any other eyes) I'm not convinced that I've discovered the entire ending yet, and something just happened in chapter 4 that negates only a very small amount of writing… but that writing is tied to the best illustration I've done for a the book so far, and I now I don't know if I'll even be able to use it!

    Thanks for all the gentle advice, Mrs. Levine; this is my new favorite place on the web. Also, the prompts on this post are so much fun that I'm tempted to abandon my manuscript for the day and give them a whirl.

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